In 2000, Iowa’s eight-piece, mask-donning band, Slipknot, was exploding with the release of its self-titled debut album a year earlier. I wasn’t an immediate fan, but they certainly drew my attention. I remember reading an article about them in a magazine, and as I was flipping through the rest of the publication, I stumbled across a picture of a similar looking eight-piece band from Cleveland, Ohio. I thought to myself, “There’s another one?!” They were so similar in appearance, also wearing masks and costumes, that it had to have been a joke or a rip-off, right? Well, as it turns out it was neither—it was Mushroomhead. And they actually formed before Slipknot way back in 1993. So for many, what started out as a possible joke was nothing they ever could have expected. After releasing seven albums and spending years building a rabid fan base, Mushroomhead celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013 and also welcomed back its original lead vocalist, J Mann (Jason Popson), who had left the band for family reasons in 2004.
But that’s not all. J Mann rejoins an already crowded lineup onstage as Mushroomhead’s third vocalist, along with Jeffrey “Nothing” Hatrix and Waylon Reavis, making for how many members in the band? I lost count. The band also has been confirmed for the 2014 Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival and dropped its first new album in four years, The Righteous & the Butterfly, on May 13 (Megaforce Records).
Not long before the album’s release, J Mann called in to chat with Live Metal’s Jeff Maki about the new album, his exit and return to the band, Mushroomhead’s long career and the band’s biggest year yet coming in 2014.
LIVE METAL: Just to give you a little background, I was never a diehard Mushroomhead fan, so I didn’t realize it, but you guys have been around for 20 years now, man. So it’s time to get Mushroomhead on Live Metal.
J MANN: That would be fantastic, man.
So 20 years? It seems like not that long ago in the early 2000s, I remember you guys just coming out. You probably don’t want to hear this, but I remember hearing about Slipknot, and then you guys popped up and I was like, “Oh, look. There’s another one!” (laughs)
Yeah, it seems like the older we get, the quicker the time goes by, you know? And it’s actually 21 years now. (laughs)
Another thing I didn’t realize is that you had been out of the band for so long.
Yeah, well, let’s see. I came back last year, so I was gone for about nine years. But in the music industry now, these days, that’s not that long because in those nine years, I think they made two records. So I’m on five out of seven records, so I didn’t miss that much. But I was gone for a while.
You see bands putting out albums almost every two years (in the current music climate), so why did they only release two the entire time you were gone?
I think a lot of that has to do with the music industry. Back in the day, when albums were actually selling before the Internet and downloading and Napster and stuff like that, they wanted you to put out an album as frequently as you could because it would sell. Now it’s so hard to sell a record, you put one out and they want you to work it for three or four years by touring, promoting and doing anything you can. Labels are a lot more hesitant to reach into their pockets and pull out to record a new album, and they really just want to make a profit or at least make their money back. So that’s why they have you work ‘em for a while.
So what was the number one reason for your return to the band? Did it kind of start with the 20th anniversary?
Yeah, even when I was not in the band, I was never far from the band. I still always talked to the guys. I would play at local shows and regional shows in the area and still work on side projects. The main thing was when I left was that my father got real sick, and the band was still on Universal. They demanded a lot of touring, and my father and I were never really that close and we didn’t know how much time he had left. So before he left, I didn’t want there to be any regrets or animosity. So that’s why I needed to take that time off with him, and that’s why I was able to come back.
So other than spending that important time with your father, what did you do away from the band? You already mentioned that you made some guest appearances.
I also had an independent record label called Fractured Transmitter and I put out some cool records. I put out an EP by a band called Meshuggah (I, 2004) that was really good, I put out a tribute album to The Melvins (We Reach: The Music of the Melvins, 2005) in which a bunch of my friends were on it, and I put out Integrity 2000 and some of my old projects. So I had about 10 releases on that, and then the whole distribution game kind of collapsed on small labels, and I had to walk away being owed like $70,000. So that changed my mind about running a record label. I was like, “OK. maybe it’s better to be back on the stage.” (laughs)
It seems like the label has really gotten behind it, but I think most importantly it’s a record that the band actually believes in. It wasn’t like, “Let’s churn out a record because that’s what we’re supposed to do.” I couldn’t wait to make this record, and it was a pleasure to make it and not an obligation. So no matter what happens sales-wise, we’re already fulfilled in our hearts as far as accomplishing what we set out to do, and anything after that is just a cherry on top. But at the same time, I think it has a chance to do pretty well. Our fingers are crossed.
[Editor's note: The Righteous & The Butterfly, the eighth studio album from Mushroomhead, sold around 11,000 copies in the United States in its first week of release to debut at position No. 20 on the Billboard 200 chart.]
I listened to the new album just before we talked, and my early thought is that is sounds like Mushroomhead, for sure, but it’s also got a different vibe to it, as well. I know no band likes to be compared, but I hear a Powerman 5000 and definitely a Clutch vibe going on.
Oh yeah. Totally. I’m actually wearing a Clutch baseball hat right now, so that’s my fault. I love that band. (laughs) And we’ve played shows with Powerman 5000 before. But I think that whenever you get a little industrial edge, you get compared to Powerman 5000, or us, or bands like Dope or Ministry. A lot of that just gets lumped in together. But the Clutch (comparison)—absolutely, man. I love that band. Honest to god, I think they’re the best American rock band right now. They just did the Soundwave Festival (February/March 2014) over in Australia and we were on that, so I got to watch them every day for like a week and it was just awesome.
[Jeff and J Mann continue Clutch discussion ... Jeff says his favorite Clutch album is its first album, Transnational Speedway League (1993), while J Mann picks the sophomore self-titled album (1995) featuring "Big News I" and "Big News II." Jeff says don't forget "Escape From the Prison Planet." Jeff goes on to say that he saw Clutch live in 1994 opening for Sepultura, Fear Factory and Fudge Tunnel in Baltimore, while J Mann claims to have seen at least one show on every U.S. tour Clutch has done. They eventually come to a conclusion that, yes, Clutch is indeed awesome.]
OK, back to the album. Not only do I hear those comparisons, but it’s also very melodic, which I was surprised about, but it’s cool. And also, there’s a lot of variety, too.
When the band started, the whole point of the band was to have a wide range of styles. That was the whole reason, initially, when we had two singers, was to have two completely different approaches. And now we have three (singers), so now we have three different approaches. Yeah, the whole point is to be versatile because at the end of the day, we’re all music fans. It’s like just because you’re in a metal band, everyone thinks you go home and the only thing you listen to is metal. But I was just at home listening to John Coltrane today while I was packing my bags for this tour, you know? I listen to everything from jazz to soul to R & B, hip-hop, to rock, metal, old classic rock, classical—you name it. I’m definitely not narrow-minded musically. There’s not anything I won’t listen to just because there’s like a stigma there. To me, if it’s good, it’s good. And I guess I grew up in a music family. I’m 40, so I’ve been listening to music since the ’70s. So you can’t always like metal—at least someone my age can’t.
Ok, so you’ve packed your bags and I guess the tour starts tomorrow (May 9, 2014), right?
We’re only doing two weeks in the Midwest, just because the album is coming out, and you’ve gotta be active when an album comes out. The reason we’re not doing more is because we’re doing the Mayhem Festival this summer and there’s like radius clauses in your contract. You can only play within so many miles of a city that Mayhem plays, and you can only do that in a time frame of 60 days or something like that. So unfortunately, we are limited at what we can do at the moment, but it’s worth it in the long run to be a part of that.
This is your first Mayhem Festival?
Yeah, this is our first Mayhem. We did Ozzfest (2002) back in the day ,but this is our first Mayhem, yeah.
The one thing that’s kept Mushroomhead around for 20 years is that it’s got a diehard fan base which is absolutely awesome, man. We love them.
Absolutely. Absolutely. The one thing that’s kept Mushroomhead around for 20 years is that it’s got a diehard fan base which is absolutely awesome, man. We love them. But that’s like a club fan base. And for us to try and grow into theaters, a lot of the smaller markets want us to come there, but a lot of that comes down to things like chart position or fanbase, or opening for a band bigger than you. And this band because of the stage show, since I’ve been gone, they’ve hardly opened for anybody. They just do their club show and are the headliner. But since I’ve been back, they’ve already done Soundwave, they just got back from Russia, we’re doing Mayhem, and it’s about opening for audiences that have never seen us, trying to win them over. Which is great, because it reminds you of being young at this, or new to this, and having to earn fans the hard way, which is exciting.
Yeah, with the new album, you coming back and the 20th anniversary, it definitely seems like a huge push for Mushroomhead right now. Is that you guys behind all of this or the label?
I think is has a little bit to do with everything. A lot of show business has to do with timing. I think the time was right for me to come back. I think we made the right album for the right reasons. The label really got behind it and we got a few singles out at radio stations now that are doing really well. And I don’t know why, but suddenly (the band) started doing festival tours. When I left, they really didn’t leave the country and they really didn’t open for anybody, but so far since I’ve been back, it’s like we’ve left the country twice, and this is our second festival coming up.
Even on our off days in Australia—Soundwave is huge, it’s 40 bands—they have these things called Sidewave, and we actually played with Korn and Rob Zombie. And you want to talk about winning new fans—I can’t think of a better audience that hasn’t heard us that should, that might actually go buy a record or come to a couple of shows. So we did those shows, and we actually kind of won the bands over. We would look over our shoulder and there’s Head and Munky or Fieldy, and they’re watching us from the side of the stage. And we’re like, “Holy shit!”
Even though you were out of the band for those years, what do you think has been the high point and low point of Mushroomhead’s career?
Well, I’ll give you a couple of examples. But the high point and the low point actually occurred on the same day, believe it or not. We were on tour on an independent label, and we actually got to come home because the tour played Columbus, Ohio, only about two hours from Cleveland. So we came home for like an afternoon just to drop some things off, pick some things off or whatever. And it was Sept. 11 and we’re sitting on the tour bus watching airplanes fly into the towers. But at the time, we had a deal on the table with Universal. We were sort of back and forth—to sort out a contract takes weeks and weeks and weeks. So it had gone back and forth a couple of times when we wanted to change this and they would come back and change stuff. But when I watched those planes fly into those towers, that’s when I said, “Give me a pen,” because if the world’s ending, I’m going out with a record deal. So that was the high point, signed to the biggest record label in the world, but it was also watching tragedy unfold at the same time.
OK, so you’ve heard the comparisons to Slipknot a thousand times, and heard about this so called “feud” with them over and over again through the years, but has this all actually helped or hurt Mushroomhead in the long run?
I don’t know if it’s helped or hurt, but I don’t think negativity helps anyone. And as far as a feud goes, I really think that it was 99 percent media. I don’t think we ever really had anything bad to say about them or vice versa. But media was all about trying to sell papers. This was back pre-Internet, in the early ’90s when (Slipknot) was taking off and we were signed and people were still trying to sell magazines. But it was really kind of invented, to be honest with you, because fortunately I had the opportunity to hang out with (former Slipknot bassist) Paul (Gray) and he was a sweetheart of a man. It’s sad that he passed away. He was a great guy, and we actually laughed about (the feud). And then we had a side project and (Slipknot’s) Sid (Wilson) is on it. You know what I mean? So the whole basis of it was crazy because we’ve actually hung out with the guys and we’ve actually worked with one of the guys. It’s just one of those things where gossip sells and creates interest or intrigue. I listen to the band and think they’re kickass, and one day I’d like to play with them.
Hey, we’re going to be at Rock on the Range, and before that, we’re going to be at the Roast on the Range of Corey Taylor.
Oh, great. Well if you run into him, tell him I kind of want to play with those guys.
Ok, so no feud. And I was gonna ask who the next feud was gonna be with—maybe Hollywood Undead?
Oh no, we’re not that type of band. To be honest with you, the next feud will be that the bass player is mad at our guitar player. Our feuds are internal. And that’s because it really is like a family. We’re like brothers. You wanna ring their neck one day, and the next day you just wanna give ‘em a kiss. That’s what it’s like in any band, but especially in our band because we’re almost twice the size of average bands. So it’s really crowded, and there’s a lot of voices, and a lot of people want a lot of attention. So it’s just family feuds—little shit like that. But as far as the industry goes, we’re ready for anything.